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Winter Report Card: Cardinals fill free-agent holes from within

Thanks to their wildly productive farm system, the Cardinals were able to survive the losses of two big free agents this winter and ace the off-season.

With less than a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams have been e presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Today we conclude with the St. Louis Cardinals. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.

2015 Results

100–62 (.617), first place in National League Central (Hot Stove Preview)

Key Departures

RHP Matt Belisle*, CF Peter Bourjos, LHP Randy Choate*, RHP Steve Cishek, C Tony Cruz, RF Jason Heyward, CF Jon Jay, IF Pete Kozma, RHP John Lackey, 1B Mark Reynolds, RHP Carlos Villanueva

Key Arrivals

RHP Matt Bowman+, IF Jedd Gyorko, RHP Mike Leake, RHP Seung-hwan Oh, C Brayan Peña

(*free agent, still unsigned; +Rule 5 draft pick)

Off-season In Review

The Cardinals’ ability to fill from within the holes in their roster created by free agency and other departures is both remarkable and, to fans and executives of the other 29 teams, annoying. Albert Pujols hits free agency? No problem, they have Allen Craig and Matt Adams. Chris Carpenter suffers a (nearly) career-ending injury? Here’s Lance Lynn to take his place. Kyle Lohse leaves? Here are Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. Miller gets traded? Here’s Carlos Martinez.

That pattern continued this off-season, when Jason Heyward and John Lackey—the top two members of last year’s 100-win team (by’s Wins Above Replacement)—hit free agency. Heyward took a $184 million offer from the Cubs, but in his place in rightfield steps Stephen Piscotty, who entered 2015 as a top-100 prospect, then hit .305/.359/.494 in 256 plate appearances as a rookie. Similarly impressive rookie showings from Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham allowed the Cardinals to redo their entire outfield, as St. Louis let Peter Bourjos go on waivers and traded Jon Jay, who is entering his walk year, to the Padres.

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For Jay, the Cardinals got Jedd Gyorko, a righthanded infielder with pop in his bat who has hit .260/.335/.441 in 370 plate appearances against lefty pitching. Gyorko, who is owed $32 million for the next four seasons with a $13 million option for 2020, can platoon at second base with the lefthanded Kolten Wong, who struggled against lefties last year, and also spell the lefty-hitting Adams at first base and Matt Carpenter at third base on occasion. Last year, the Cardinals signed Mark Reynolds to platoon with Adams, but with Reynolds now a Rockie, St. Louis can simply enact a complex platoon there, with the righthanded Pham pushing the righthanded Piscotty from rightfield to first base against lefties.

As for the loss of Lackey: The Cardinals became the first team since the 2011 Phillies to win 100 games, and that was despite Adam Wainwright blowing out his Achilles tendon after just four starts. Wainwright’s return takes care of the hole in the rotation created by the 37-year-old Lackey’s departure to Chicago, but what the Cardinals were not prepared for was Lynn having Tommy John surgery in November. Still, the timing of that was almost perfect: Lynn will have 16 months to rehabilitate before being asked to re-enter the rotation in 2017, and St. Louis had all off-season to shop for a replacement.

Not needing to pick up an ace thanks to Wainwright's return and the impressive 2015 seasons of Martinez and Wacha, the Cardinals opted for youth and reliability by signing 28-year-old Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million contract. Leake has made 30 or more starts in each of the last four seasons and posted a 105 ERA+ over the last three. The Cardinals didn’t need much more than a mid-rotation innings eater, and Leake, who has seen his velocity steadily increase over the last four years, is a perfect fit.

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Outside of Leake, the Cardinals were able to keep things small this off-season. In reaction to the recent decline and increased fragility of the 33-year-old Yadier Molina, St. Louis upgraded his backup by signing Brayan Peña (.271/.313/.345, 84 OPS+ over the last three years) to a two-year, $5 million deal and trading Tony Cruz (.203/.249/.288, 48 OPS+ over the last three years) to the Royals for teenage shortstop Jose Martinez. In the bullpen, the Cardinals re-signed deadline addition Jonathan Broxton for $7.5 million over two years and added 33-year-old Korean closer Seung-hwan Oh on a one-year deal for a reported $5 million that could max out at $11 million if his 2017 option is picked up and all incentives are met. Oh is the greatest closer in Korea Baseball Organization history and spent the last two years closing for Nippon Professional Baseball’s Hanshin Tigers, but he is expected to work as a setup man for closer Trevor Rosenthal in St. Louis.

The qualifying offers that the Cardinals made to both Heyward and Lackey, meanwhile, paid off in the form of a pair of compensatory draft picks. That will help restock a farm system that has done such a remarkable job of restocking the major league club in recent years.

Unfinished Business:A second lefty in the bullpen

If there is a hole on the Cardinals' roster, it’s their lack of lefties in the bullpen. Kevin Siegrist (yet another home grown player) was outstanding in 2015, but the only other lefty reliever on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is Dean Kiekhefer, who has yet to make his major league debut and struck out just 5.6 men per nine innings in Triple A last year. St. Louis doesn’t even have a lefty reliever among its non-roster invitees. The team's rotation depth, however, is entirely lefthanded. If the Cardinals feel they really need a second southpaw in the bullpen, they can always turn to the minors and call up one of Tyler Lyons (who made nine major league relief appearances last year), Tim Cooney or Marco Gonzales.

Preliminary Grade: A

The Cardinals’ farm has been so productive that St. Louis almost seems to be playing a different game than the rest of the league in terms of roster construction. It feels unfair, but it’s very much the result of hard work by the same front office that would otherwise have to be more aggressive over the winter. I’m not grading the productivity of the farm system here—only the Cardinals’ effectiveness in fleshing out their roster for another competitive season. There are no deductions or extra credit for the fact that they had less work to do because of the talent coming up from within. Nonetheless, the willingness and ability to trust that talent made things easy for general manager John Mozeliak and company, who once again aced the off-season.